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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

The US can't get Middle East support on Ukraine

June 15, 2022

The US and EU would like Saudi Arabia to pump more oil and the UAE to stop hiding Russian oligarchs' superyachts and assets. But they won't — even though the US is still the dominant military power in the region.

A protester holding a sign telling the US to get out of the Middle East
Recent polls suggest that 50% of locals in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the US as an unreliable partner. Image: Sachelle Babbar/Zumapress/picture alliance

It was seen as a serious snub. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, US officials supposedly tried to organize a phone call between US President Joe Biden and the de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.

But the Saudi crown prince, often referred to simply as MBS, apparently refused to take the call. Shortly afterwards, however, MBS spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the following month, he also spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The White House later denied Biden's calls had been rebuffed. But in many ways, it didn't matter. Because this was only the latest incident in a particularly chilly period in the relationship between the US and some of its closest, oil-producing friends in the Middle East.

In the recent past, Biden has described Saudi Arabia as a "pariah state," a commentary on the allegedly state-orchestrated murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, as well as the country's dismal overall human rights record.

Hoping to be reunited with Saudi Arabia and other partners

The problem is that now, thanks to the war in Ukraine, the US needs Saudi Arabia and its neighbors once again. The US and Europe would like their partners in the Middle East to do things like pump more oil in order to lower global prices, support various United Nations' resolutions opposing the invasion of Ukraine and assist with sanctions on Russia.

But they are reluctant. Oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are mostly sticking to production limits previously agreed with the OPEC+ group, which includes Russia. Superyachts, private jets and Russian oligarchs' assets arebeing sheltered from seizure in the UAE and other countries in the region, including US allies Iraq, Jordan and Israel, declined to vote against Russia at the UN Security Council.

President Donald Trump (R) meets with Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman
Former President Donald Trump (r) was widely seen as being indifferent toward Saudi human rights abusesImage: Mark Wilson/abaca/picture alliance

So why is it that the US, a major player in the Middle East for decades, has not been able to persuade its supposed "friends" to take its side?

Since the end of World War II the US has traded its military might for energy security in the region. And asan April report from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) pointed out, the US "remains the dominant security guarantor and largest exporter of arms to the region." The US still has large military bases around the Middle East and between 45,000 and 60,000 personnel stationed there. Its presence dwarfs that of other players, the ECFR noted.

However, when the Americans started to extract their own oil at home — since 2019, the US has exported more petroleum than it imports — Middle Eastern oil producers became less relevant.

"I would argue that, over the last 20 years, while the US has not withdrawn from the region, priorities have changed," said Aaron D. Miller, a former foreign policy adviser to the US government and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Kuwaiti fighter jet with the words 'Free Kuwait' on the side.
In Operation Desert Storm, the US sent troops to help Kuwait after it was attacked by neighboring Iraq in 1990Image: dpa/picture-alliance

Feeling neglected, while China reaches out

The Middle East is still very important, just not quite as important as it was, Miller told DW. "There's no question that our regional partners began to feel that their primary benefactors and patrons were paying them less attention," he explained. "That has produced a situation where key states — the Saudis and the Emiratis in particular — have sought to reach out to others."

China, for example, is by far the world's largest importer of oil, and in 2020, 47% of its imports came from the Middle East. The Asian superpower has been strengthening its relationships there, including helping develop ballistic missiles in Saudi Arabia, buying up Iraqi oil production facilities and investing in Iraqi infrastructure.

"These are sovereign countries that have interests that are often not aligned with ours, and we are not the only game in town," confirmed Bilal Saab, director of the Defense and Security Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, or MEI. "They have other options. These may not be as good as the US, but they're there." 

However, as the Ukraine war goes on and the global economic situation worsens (partially due to high oil prices), the US is trying to reclaim the ground it has lost to others, like China and Russia.

A high level delegation, led by US Vice-President Kamala Harris, visited the UAE in mid-May and met with Emirati leader, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, after the death of his half-brother.

This week, US media reported that the US president himself would visit Saudi Arabia in mid-July for meetings with Saudi leader MBS, something Biden has previously appeared reluctant to do.

Students attend a class to learn the Chinese language in Baghdad, Iraq.
In Iraq, the first Chinese language school for locals opened in Baghdad last yearImage: Khalil Dawood/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

Looking for mutual benefits

"If we wanted to play hard ball, presumably we could," said Miller, who worked at the US State Department for over two decades, advising various administrations on Middle East policy. "But I've watched us deal with Middle Eastern countries for 40 years and rarely, if ever, do we bring that kind of pressure to bear on a country when it's a matter of [their own] vital national interest."

Instead, what's needed is "smart, adept alliance management," Miller argued, something he believes is now underway.

The MEI's Saab thinks there's progress, too, with actions like deploying the high-level delegation to the UAE. And in terms of further persuasion, there are plenty more areas where the US can demonstrate how cooperation can be mutually beneficial, he added.

"One of those areas is integrated air and missile defense," the author of the recently published book, "Rebuilding Arab Defense: US Security Cooperation in the Middle East" said. This is something that countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE need, thanks to missile attacks from Yemen, including one which shut down almost half of all Saudi oil production in 2019. 

"But if they were to go down the path of acquiring, or possibly developing, ballistic missiles with the help of the Chinese, then we may not help on integrated air missile defense," Saab suggested.  

A poster against the 1990-1991 military intervention Operation Desert Storm, demanding that US troops be brought home
The US says it's 'right-sizing' troop numbers in the Middle East but still has up to 60,000 personnel in the regionImage: Photoreporters/dpa/picture-alliance

Underestimating the EU

The EU should also play a role, as Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East expert and senior policy fellow at the ECFR, told DW. "The EU seems content to let the US administration do most of the heavy lifting," he said. But in fact, Europeans have plenty to offer, particularly in terms of things like development support, humanitarian aid, foreign direct investment, trade and security.

"While Chinese and Russian contributions are often overexaggerated, European contributions are often underappreciated, including by Europeans themselves," Lovatt cautioned. There is a need to "instill a more general sense that the West remains committed to the region, in a way that goes beyond the current preoccupation with narrow self-interests," he said.

The MEI's Saab would prefer to see a "reset" of US relationships with important Middle Eastern partners. The previous transactional model — Saab calls it the "oil for security covenant, where the US simply came to the rescue" — no longer applies. 

"We need a renewed partnership on new terms, where each party has obligations and responsibilities, and is sensitive to collective and regional security interests," he argued. "And I would certainly want them in our corner again, because they play important roles in this strategic competition with China and Russia."

"It would be great to add these countries to the long list of those prepared to oppose Russia with sanctions, Miller agreed. "But that may be unrealistic," the former US foreign policy adviser said, advocating a more pragmatic approach. "I think when this all sorts itself out in some way, we are going to end up with a sort of Cold War 2.0, but one where many countries in the world are not going to be willing to choose sides."

Motor Yacht A belonging to Russian oligarch Andrey Melnichenko is anchored in the port of Ras al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates.
Luxury vessel, Motor Yacht A, which belongs to a Russian oligarch, has recently been spotted in the UAEImage: Kamran Jebreili/AP/picture alliance

Edited by: Jon Shelton

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.